The post-2008 political landscape in Europe has been littered with public discontent and protest. In Spain and Greece this has manifested itself in revolt against the European establishment and a refusal to be bound by the financial practices of the past. In England, immigration has raced to the forefront of the political agenda, while in Scotland and Catalunya nationalism has come to the fore in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. In France the National Front has eroded support for the rightwing UMP while simultaneously appealing to much of the working class. Even Germany has not been immune to an element of political unrest.
Although the principles underlying these movements may differ greatly, it would be foolish not to wonder if there is a common denominator running through European protest. If history has taught us anything it is that the lines separating socialist uprisings from fascist popularity are not as clear as we may like to think. Political movements often thrive on the charisma of their leaders and their ability to build a narrative that chimes with the misery or discontent of the public. In Germany’s broken socioeconomic structure of the 1920’s it could easily have been the communists who came to power on a wave of popular support instead of the National Socialists. But the Nazis were more adept at political maneuvering and public manipulation. One of the many lessons available from this episode however is that most individuals are not remotely concerned with political ideology. Instead they back parties that offer the best guarantee of personal and collective security. This security can and does take many shapes, but it is the desire to protect one’s self and one’s security that is at the core of electoral and public decision-making. But electoral decisions are also often made with rejection in mind – rejection of the incumbent political force and policies. Under these circumstances, a clear and workable alternative vision matters less, since the public desire to oust those who have led them into darker times will often be sufficient to create political change. This is the predominant theme in modern politics and since voters are often hard pressed to identify the core differences between candidates, a vote for one is largely just a rejection of the other.
But the current wave of demonstrations across Europe is about something greater than electoral choice, it represents a rejection of modern politics. The SNP, UKIP and the Catalan nationalists may promote very different ideals but all try to tap into the disenchantment of voters in the face of globalised, neoliberal politics administered from a distant centre of power. All seek to recapture a real or imaginary notion of local identity from the clutches of external bureaucratic institutions. All offer a vision of the future which appeals to those who want a greater say in shaping their local culture and society. As citizens feel increasingly distant from the centre of power they strive to have a greater say in organising their communities in a way which is consistent with their own beliefs and identity rather than those of policymakers in London, Madrid or Brussels.
While the Eurogroup ministers prepare to work through the night to try to reach a deal to paper over the cracks of the problems in the Eurozone, it’s time for a quick change of focus. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed my feeling that society is fundamentally misaligned with the needs of its people. Capitalism’s firm hold over the individual and collective psyche means that policies and actions are market-oriented, even in many cases where we might wish otherwise. I have discussed this to some extent elsewhere (see The Inner Class Divide) and have mentioned my belief that modern society lacks strong social institutions which can develop a sense of communal endeavour and belonging. Needs of individuals and communities which do not find themselves aligned with a market objective are often ignored or manhandled by the state.
I was pleased therefore to come across an article last week showing firm evidence of what can be achieved through social and community solutions. British journalist, Johann Hari has gained recognition for his work on the ‘war on drugs’ and has highlighted how Portugal has gained unprecedented success by turning to communities instead of the strong arm of the law. According to Hari,
“Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find—the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
With capitalism in the doldrums and a general election nearly upon us it is the season to reflect on how we might manage to convert the neoliberal, market-driven free-for-all of our current society into something we might actually like to live in. Will Hutton set the ball rolling in the Guardian yesterday with a lengthy promotion of his new book, which lays out a new framework for building “smart societies.” Hutton’s critique of the existing order raises some salient points and only those living on the moon over the last generation or three could have failed to notice that “problems in the British economy and society run deep.” He is also right in asserting that, if “there are no networks of reciprocal obligation, and no acknowledgement that human beings associate in a society they can construct, redesign and reform around those principles, then we are all reduced to atomistic consumers and workers – serfs who are no more than notations in the spreadsheets of companies and public bodies alike.”
The problem with Hutton’s analysis, however, is that he still puts business and wealth creation at the heart of society. “The aim of any manifesto for change” says Hutton “must be to create the smartest economy for Britain – it is the only route to prosperity in the decades ahead.” Refining the mechanisms of wealth generation is all very well but surely this should not take precedence over the social and human fabric of the world we live in. Unfortunately, Hutton is a little sketchy on this issue and even though he is adamant that businesses should not solely tools of stock market speculation, he also declares that “companies are organisations of genius, solving problems, innovating and delivering great goods and services.” ICI, GEC and Rolls Royce are all used to show Britain’s great industrial tradition but he conveniently forgets recent allegations of corruption and bribery in the latter.
It is well and truly crunch time and this week will be pivotal in defining the future of Greece and the Eurozone. It was interesting to read criticism this morning of Syriza’s approach to negotiations over the last couple of weeks, with at least one commentator pointing out that Varoufakis’ negotiating actions have not matched his academic knowledge of game theory. Let’s not forget though that at least he is showing willingness to resolve the situation in a way that will keep Greece solvent and avoid disaster. This is more than can be said for his Eurogroup partners.
Later today Syriza faces a vote of confidence in the Greek Parliament. Although it is likely to gain enough votes, this is just a precursor to tomorrow’s meeting in Brussels of EU finance ministers which could be one of the last opportunities to take steps towards a compromise before things start to unravel. After the ECB stopped accepting Greek bonds as collateral on loans last week, the National Bank of Greece has been forced to increase its operations through the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) in order to prop up the Greek banks. This is essentially a form of credit sanctioned by the ECB but with the proviso that it can be cut off at any moment if the ECB feels it is excessive. The end of Greek ELA would be the point of no return, leading to a run on Greek banks, bankruptcy and a certain exit from euro. Even now, Greek bank deposits continue to plummet at an alarming rate, adding to the likelihood of a run on the banks. Unless things change dramatically Greece will surely have to institute capital controls very soon to hang on to what’s left in their financial system. According to the ECB, Greek banks have lost around 21 billion euros since December, amounting to unsustainable losses. Although capital controls would break the European Union Treaty, this is not without precedent, and Cyprus was allowed to introduce this measure, with some success, in 2013. However, this will be an unpopular measure within Greece and is likely to be a severe test for Tsipras and his government.
“There is no moral justification for extreme poverty side by side with great wealth.”
Inequality was the hot topic in economics and political economy in 2014. Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, hit the best-sellers list and brought an overdue and welcome look at the historical evolution of wealth distribution in the developed world. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities all weighed in with their analysis of Piketty’s research and brought inequality discussion firmly into the mainstream. I finally got round to reading it towards the end of 2014 and found myself in agreement with much of what was written, particularly with the compelling case Piketty makes for the historical evolution of inequality. The crux of the matter, says Piketty, is that over the long-run returns to capital (r) are larger than economic growth (g) and so there is a tendency for wealth to outgrow income, leading to increased levels of inequality. This central point of his analysis has made some waves in the economics community and there has been a predictable backlash from some quarters. Nonetheless, it makes for compelling reading up to, that is, the point where Piketty proposes measures to reduce inequality (more about this later).
Although ‘Capital’ is already old news, it is been in my mind over the last couple of weeks due to a few interesting developments. Firstly, it was a shock to see President Obama move towards tackling inequality in his State of the Union address in January with a few Piketty-influenced measures. Raising capital gains tax to 28% for those with incomes over $500,000, closing a popular tax loophole for the rich, and imposing a new levy on firms with assets over $50 billion, were all interesting measures, and not ones we would normally expect from a US President. Although the sentiment is right, it is still hard to justify the wealthy paying less in capital gains than regular mortals pay in income tax.
It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks in European politics. From a socialist perspective these are encouraging times and the victory of Syriza in Greece, along with the quarter of a million people marching for change with Podemos in Spain, have shown that there is a real possibility of political change on the horizon. But as always in politics things are far from certain and these popular leftwing movements need to defend themselves from attacks from both inside and outside their own countries. It is already clear that the leaders of these parties recognise the importance of solidarity and support for each other, with Pablo Iglesias’ pre-election appearance in Athens being a notable example. But it is not evident yet how pan-European this revival of the radical left is. At some point in the future I plan to write down a few thoughts on why radical (or in some cases revolutionary) spirit can catch on in one country but not another. In other words, what are the forces containing or spreading this political awakening of the people? But in the meantime, I thought I’d take a quick look at Spain’s neighbour on the Iberian Peninsula to consider why the left has failed to capture the public imagination in Portugal in the same way that Podemos has in Spain.
As the new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, travels through Europe to set the ball rolling on Greek debt negotiations, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves that there are more problems within the Eurozone than southern European debt. One of the things that stands out from reading the popular media and internet discussions is that debt reduction is a polarising issue. On the one hand are those who recognise the madness in continuing austerity policies and acknowledge that flexibility on publicly held debt is a pre-requisite for recovery. On the other are those who claim that it is morally and financially unacceptable that hard-working northern Europeans should have to continually bail out southern Europeans from a mess that was of their own making.
My aim here is not to rehash the many, many reasons why this type of austerity policies has been proven to be politically, economically and morally bankrupt. Instead, with Varoufakis in Europe, I’m going to bring up Germany’s colossal current account surplus and ask why Germany feels able to call for structural change in Greece when it refuses to address the imbalances in its own economy.
To round things off after Part 2 yesterday, here is the third and final part of this essay looking at our internal class conflict and its implications for radical left-wing political alternatives in Europe and beyond…
The Inner Class Divide
That we as individuals are subject to various stimuli contributing to development is nothing new. Much has been written on child development and much of this can extend also into adult life in terms of continuous learning and development. Where things have changed in recent years is in the increased intensity and aggression of stimuli relating to late stage capitalism. On the one hand we possess a social brain, allowing us to feel empathy and make emotional connections, and a character forged through a myriad of social connections and interactions. Many of us experience a fundamental need to share our lives with friends, family and community. But on the other hand, we are bombarded with advertising signals and media messages telling us that consumption is the ultimate goal and that this must be driven by aggressive, competitive activity in the market place. Much of what we experience through advertising relates to consumption or the adoption of an idealised version of self to which we should aspire. We are told that that we can have everything as long as we consume. In a ‘post-religious’ world it is salvation through consumption. Our participation in society can be bought instead of fostered through genuine social interaction.
But we are the recipients of contradictory messages. Identity formation through the solitary pursuit of commodities in order to satisfy a conditioned super ego is at odds with our more basic needs as social animals. Capitalism relies on competition whereas our early development engenders the value of cooperation. The (cultural) super ego tells us that to succeed at life we need to compete in the market place, earn money as efficiently as possible, and construct our idealised identities. But our innate characteristics and our basic human needs show us the importance of people over the market. This is class warfare in every sense, with the mind being the battleground. Many individuals therefore experience a subconscious, inner class tension, with a consuming, competitive, aspirational self striving to keep up in the market, and a social self yearning for cooperation and interaction. This ideological battle is internalised and fought daily in a way that has far greater implications than the debate in the political arena.
Following on from Part 1 yesterday, it is time to consider whether there are any innate or conditioned psychological factors which can counteract the hold of capitalism over our psyches and identities…
A Social Brain
To answer this question we may go in search of something akin to innate, or core values to see where psychological barriers to capitalism may lie. Literature and philosophy are full of speculation on such matters and we do not have to go far to find a definition of self contrary to the solitary, competitive animal of the market place. “Man is by nature a social animal…Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Aristotle’s view of man is of course well known but to what extent does this fit a more contemporary profile?
Most of us would instinctively agree that as humans we have an innate need for social contact. Few great achievements are done in isolation and we have long known that collaboration is fundamental in helping us to surpass what we may succeed in doing alone. Our development as functional human beings takes place in an environment of social stimuli, as interaction with parents, siblings, teachers and peers all leave their mark on our formative personalities. Vygotsky and the social constructivists made a strong case for arguing that education is a social tool, with learning taking place as a result of cultural, social and linguistic interaction. In this model, learning is acquired and assimilated in a social context before being internalised. Learning is therefore best realised in social and collaborative environments.
Like many people I am fascinated by the political changes taking place across southern Europe. Syriza’s victory in Greece has taken us into unchartered political waters and it remains to be seen what the impact of this will be in Greece, Europe and beyond. In thinking about this I have found myself wondering what it is we are really witnessing here – does the Greek election signal a change in the political landscape and a long-term shift to the left or is this just a temporary backlash against corruption and austerity which may be swept away within a matter of months? Is this movement backed by a change in mindset of the electorate or are the people just voting for the most tangible change due to widespread desperation?
This train of thought motivated to write an article on the psychological issues around these emerging left-wing political movements. Although I have already submitted this for publication elsewhere I would like to share it here also, with any feedback being welcomed! Due to its length I’ve decided to post this in several sections over the next few days so today I start with the first two sections…